Our 6-Week Family Trip To China Was Nothing Like I Expected

great wall of china unrestored section

Photo: Courtesy of Rindge Leaphart

The challenge was a six-week trip around the tourist-free parts of China with two feral children, no guide and not a word of Mandarin. Sara Wheeler was relieved at and surprised by the warm welcome that awaited her family.Over the course of six weeks travelling independently in China, I must have bought my sons 20 plastic footballs. Whenever the pair of them started a kickabout next to a rice paddy, two teams quickly assembled. A football pulled like a magnet.

Once, the boys started fooling around with a ball in a courtyard of the Labrang Monastery on the Tibetan plateau, among the most important Buddhist centres in the world. Within minutes, young monks fluttered out like starlings, hitching up crimson robes and racing for the ball.

A country that bans Facebook is a dicey choice for a family holiday if you are in possession of a 15-year-old. Besides that, both said teen and his 10-year-old sibling are appallingly badly behaved – almost feral – and their father and I wondered what disciplinarian Chinese parents would make of them (and of us).

But the boys adapted to China from the first day, and it turned out to be the perfect destination for an outdoorsy family with a flexible approach to lavatorial arrangements.

We used the services of tour operators both here and in China but never travelled in a group, and we did most of the research ourselves using Lonely Planet and the internet. This was time-consuming, and not for the faint-hearted. I was determined not to race around ticking off sights – indeed I was keen to avoid sights.

We decided to begin in Hong Kong and end in Beijing, and chose three regions in between, picking out the most interesting rural corner of each. For the most part we travelled by bus, or hired a car and driver, or took a soft sleeper compartment (ruan wo) on a night train, and we stayed in simple guesthouses – some very simple (two had no bathrooms at all). Every couple of weeks we indulged in a spot of luxury. We booked trains, buses and some accommodation via the brilliant Chengdu-based tour operator Yu Ying at Navo Tour. Crucially, the obliging Mr Yu spoke good English; it took a lot of web-trawling to find him.

To prepare for this article, I asked my crew to choose the highlight of the whole eventful six weeks. Three of us chose Baoshan in the north-west of Yunnan. (Younger son, Reg, dissented. He chose the Wii console in his room at the Hong Kong Mandarin Oriental.)

The poor province of Yunnan nestles in the dent between Burma, Vietnam and Laos on China’s distant south-west frontier. Perched on a natural citadel overlooking the Yangtze, and edging into the foothills of the Himalayas, Baoshan village has no roads, and we had to walk the last leg. Our guesthouse had a squatter loo, no coffee and a murderously loud rooster that lived in a permanent dawn.

But for three days I sat high above a bend in the Yangtze, watching the river change from milky coffee to silver at a thousand-year-old trading post on the Tea Horse Road (Chama Dao), where caravans once took tea west to Tibet and India, and brought horses back east to China.

In the Baoshan shop (there was only one), cash was stored in a washing-up bowl, and behind the counter a poster advertising China Mobile had peeled away to reveal a faded slogan from the Cultural Revolution: ‘Zao Fan You Li’ – ‘To rebel is justified’.

Our mud-brick homestay guesthouse, Mr Moo’s, abutted the ancient entrance gate where people gathered to smoke Tibetan pipes and play cards. Like everyone in Baoshan, they were Naxi (pronounced ‘Nashi’), members of a 250,000-strong tribe of nature-worshippers with the only pictographic script still in use in the world. The older ones had never learnt to speak Mandarin. One, Mrs Lao, a spritely 75-year-old with a face so wrink­led it was smooth, guided us along thin paths down to the Yangtze and through purple Himalayan saxifrage on the mountainsides beyond. The landscape unfurled like a painted Ming scroll. Every 10 minutes, the Katy Perry ringtone on Mrs Lao’s mobile phone went off.

In Baoshan my boys peered in at open windows where a woman was washing up in a tin basin or weaving on a loom, something that as an adult I could never do on the grounds that it’s nosey. People invited them in, and they returned chattering with news. They learnt a couple of dozen words of both Mandarin and Naxi. Wherever we were in China, people involved them warmly. At a noodle shop in Lige on Lake Lugu in Yunnan, Reg performed with the resident drummer, and when we went for a walk before breakfast in Wenqian two boys leading water buffalo gave Reg and Wilf a ride.

In Huang San on the outskirts of Lijiang, the ancient Naxi capital, I took a translator to interview a dongba, a Naxi shaman (the religion evolved from Tibetan Bon Buddhism). The 40-year-old He Kai sported a Dalí moustache and oiled hair and wore an elaborate gold waistcoat over scarlet robes. We sat round a fire in his single room while he tugged on a 4ft-long pipe with a cigarette poked in the end. Paintings of Naxi animal spirits danced across the walls. Mr He is a sixth-generation dongba. I asked him what his role involved.

‘I speak to the spirits on behalf of the people,’ he said. ‘I give advice on failing harvests, and conduct ceremonies – weddings, funerals, prayers for convalescence, that kind of thing. At festivals I pray for good fortune.’ He had never been to school. ‘As a child I used to go around the mountain villages with my grandpa, who was also the medicine man.’

He had to beg for several years while learning the Naxi script, which only the priestly caste writes and reads. I asked if he would write me something, and he brought out a bundle of the insect-resistant paper that the Naxi have made for generations, and started writing – painting, rather, as he used a brush.

‘Red Guards destroyed most of our books in the Cultural Revolution,’ he said as sweeping hieroglyphics crept across the paper, ‘and either killed dongbas or compelled them to abandon their profession.’ The Naxi had never really recovered from the murderous horrors of the Cultural Revolution.

‘I worry about the future,’ Mr He said. ‘There are only 30 dongbas left. In village classrooms, Naxi children have to speak Mandarin.’ The government in Beijing boasts about ‘one big family’, but the Goddess of Democracy statue hoisted in Tiananmen Square in 1989 has yet to be made flesh.

The trouble with a six-week family holiday is the generalised impossibility of getting away from one’s family. I developed a keen eye for the women-only thermal baths in Yunnan – basically a roof over a tiled hot spring.

In a one-yak village in the north-west, I bathed with women who cleaned one another’s backs with a kitchen scrubbing brush and unravelled topknots to soap long black hair. When they had finished, they washed their knickers in the same water. They were friendly, gesturing the best place to stand to feel the impact of the flowing water, and stared at my DD poitrine, never having seen such enormous appendages. When they felt more confident, and sufficient smiles had been exchanged, they asked if they could touch them. The roof was an arch of dirty glass and the afternoon sun slanted on to cobwebs and cracked plaster, and on to the girls’ spent shampoo sachets floating on the surface of the sudsy water.

It was not one long idyll. Road travel is hazardous. No Chinese driver would dream of stopping at a pedestrian crossing, and fatalities are epic in scale – on a two-hour journey outside Beijing we passed three accidents, one of which had resulted in a pair of corpses on the tarmac. On the four-hour minibus trip from Lijiang to Baoshan, the driver chain-smoked and talked on his phone, even on the hairpin bends. As for the horn – according to the China-watcher Peter Hessler, it is a neurological extension of a driver’s nervous system. Neither is public transport infallible. On a six-hour bus ride to Lake Lugu, two of us had to sit in the aisle. A plane journey from Hong Kong to Guilin was delayed for nine hours. And so it went on.

Now we must come to matters lavatorial. Squatters are de rigueur outside metropolitan areas (and often within them – the gleaming new Kunming airport has no sit-downs), and I broke fresh personal ground at a bus station in Guanxi when I entered a two-at-a-time lavatory and crouched next to a stranger.

More seriously, we went for weeks without meeting a single person who spoke English, which makes independent travel hellishly fraught. Even urban taxi drivers don’t recognise the most basic proper names, and we quickly learnt that we had to have everything written down in Mandarin. If, like me, you have not a single character of Mandarin in your repertoire, you have to plan ahead, collaring English speakers in advance to write out a list of toponyms. The byzantine transport systems were similarly hard to navigate with one’s tongue tied. Catching a bus from Lijiang, for example, involved a baffling search for the numberplate at an apparently random starting point that turned out to be the starting point of hundreds of other buses. We learnt to station ourselves at four different spots, goggling attentively.

Nor was China solely wondrous to behold. Large-scale, high-rise construction was under way in every province. Entire districts were rising, yet tens of thousands of tower blocks stood empty. Inflation runs at 8-10 per cent in China, whatever official figures say, and nobody knows what will happen when the property bubble bursts and the ideological battle between Maoists and modernisers approaches an endgame. I was glad that my kids could see China now.

In addition, you don’t get to be the world’s largest energy producer without belching out a lot of crap (not to mention irreversibly poisoning the water table). In Xining, in Xi’an, in Beijing, the traffic was filthy, metaphorically, the pollution filthy, literally. The headlong rush to develop has pushed so far west that it is even approaching our small Yunnan paradise. High up in Mr Moo’s eyrie, as I watched the Yangtze change colour, I contemplated a gash through the Himalayan yew on the mountainside. It was a dirt road, inching nearer.

Food in China is completely different from the gloopy monosodium-glutamated gunk often served in Britain. Street food was universally tasty, and at guesthouses such as Mr Moo’s we ate vegetables from the garden, eggs laid that morning, and pork from the last pig slaughtered, all freshly wok’d. Again though, much is not for the faint-hearted.

Before trekking from Yunnan into Sichuan, we accompanied our guide on a shopping expedition. He led us down an alley to a chicken yard where he proceeded to hold up live fowls for us to select. Bunnies hopped all around and he suspended one of those by its ears too, but the boys howled, so we did without roast rabbit.

After that challenge we returned to Lijiang and indulged at the gorgeous Banyan Tree in ‘Over-the-Bridge Black Fish’, a grouper that swims in the meltwater of the sacred Jade Dragon Snow Mountain before turning into an esteemed delicacy served in thin raw slices dropped into broth at the table.

It was not altogether a relaxing trip, at least for the adults. Although my partner and I had planned as thoroughly as we could before departure, we were still obliged to spend long evenings hunched over the map of China and our soon tattered guidebook, often in the flickering light of a kerosene lantern. When we got stuck, and needed advice on how to establish which bus was ours, we rang Mr Yu, the tour operator at Navo, on our mobiles (coverage off the beaten track is better than it is in Europe).

I would recommend everything we did, if you have an appetite for adventure. On reflection, it wasn’t really too hard. We were surprised at the Chinese warmth and capacity for friendliness – I think we had been expecting the foreign-devil treatment, and nothing could have been further from reality. As for cost: in rural areas we lived easily for £25 per head per day, including accommodation. The 11-hour train journey from Xi’an to Beijing costs between £30 and £82 one way, depending on class; children under 120cm travel free, and those measuring 120-150cm go half-price. Buses are super-cheap. As for luxury, China does five-star in style. At journey’s end in Beijing the Opposite House in the Sanlitun district dazzled us all: cutting-edge artworks in the cavernous atrium, football-pitch rooms, brushed-steel pool – one felt quite the country cousin.

The children learnt that it was more rewarding to discover China for themselves than have a tour guide lead them by the nose. However, it was worth throwing money at some things. We had saved the Great Wall as a grand finale, but as Chinese tourists travel in multitudinous herds, the wall is impossible at its nearest points to Beijing.

On our penultimate day we lashed out on a day trip with an English-speaking guide, a private minibus and a packed lunch, and headed to Jinshanling in Hebei province a couple of hours north-east of the capital to walk a 10.5km section of the wall. Some of the brick cladding had broken away revealing the original tamped earth, a beacon tower had collapsed entirely, and the floor was badly cracked up in places, but for a whole afternoon we had the fabled wall to ourselves, and the watchtowers on distant ridges seemed to be floating towards the Simatai mountains as the wall dipped and looped between its ancient Ming towers.

‘I’m going to miss China,’ Reg said. ‘But I’m looking forward to a Domino’s pizza.’

As the Chinese proverb insists, ‘It is better to travel 10,000 miles than to read 10,000 scrolls.’

The Ultimate Travel Company (020-3603 9350; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk ) can arrange bespoke journeys across China, both on and off the beaten track. An 18-day adventure, beginning in Hong Kong and ending in Beijing with an indulgent stop en route in Lijiang, costs from £3,850 pp, including BA flights to Hong Kong, returning from Beijing, private transfers, guiding and an exclusive Great Wall walk. Navo Tour: navo-tour.com

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